National MP Simon O'Connor questions name of new Matariki holiday over 'diversity' concerns

National MP Simon O'Connor is questioning the name of the new Matariki holiday over concerns about "respecting cultural diversity". 

In Māori culture, Matariki is both the name of the Messier 45 Pleiades star cluster and of the celebration of its first rising in late June or early July. It marks the beginning of the new year in the Māori lunar calendar.

Matariki will be celebrated as a new public holiday on June 24 this year, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said will be a "distinctly New Zealand holiday'' and "our first public holiday that recognises Te Ao Māori".

But O'Connor, speaking in Parliament on Wednesday as the proposed law went through stages of party votes, suggested the new holiday needed a more neutral name. 

He cited 'Messier 45' - the term given to the star cluster with reference to French astronomer Charles Messier, who during the 18th century noted the presence of several "nebulous objects" in the night sky.

"How are we respecting the cultural diversity of the country because they've chosen to use the word 'Pleiades'? Now, that's a term particularly out of Greek mythology," O'Connor said. 

"Those of us more colloquial would think of this as the Seven Sisters. Of course, in more astronomical terms, this is Messier 45. So I suppose the question is why officials, or the people, have chosen to be so specific to use Greek mythology?"

National MP Simon O'Connor with leader Christopher Luxon.
National MP Simon O'Connor with leader Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: Facebook / Simon O'Connor

The Māori lunar calendar is also referred to as the Maramataka, which according to Te Papa Museum, literally means the turning of the moon, marking the phases of the moon in a lunar month.

O'Connor added: "I understand there are various names in Māoridom for Matariki... how are we going to respect that? Because there is not a Māori name, there are many.

"There are multiple, multiple names, and maybe a suggestion of why [the minister] hasn't used the neutral astrological term Messier 45, which would have kept everyone happy."

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman criticised National's stance in a post on Twitter. 

"The Opposition voted against the new Matariki public holiday being named 'Matariki'. Like we can't handle ONE national holiday having a Māori name," she wrote. 

Poking fun at O'Connor's suggestion of a more neutral name for the holiday, Ghahraman said: "Can we pretend we can rename every cultural holiday? Northern Hemisphere Winter Pine Fest on Dec 25th anyone?"

The Government established a Matariki Advisory Group to consult on the new holiday, led by Professor Rangiānehu Matamua, who has spent over 20 years researching Matariki. 

"Iwi mark the start of the Māori New Year in different ways around the country, so it's important this holiday acknowledges those regional differences," Prof Matamua said in February last year when it was announced. 

Because the date of Matariki changes each year depending on the appearance of the star cluster in the sky, the Matariki Advisory Group will provide advice on future dates of the public holiday, how it should be celebrated, and support the development of resources to educate the public on Matariki and the celebrations.

The Advisory Group will work on recommended dates for the next 30 years to give businesses and communities' certainty.

"This will be a day to acknowledge our nation's unique, shared identity, and the importance of tikanga Māori. It's going to be something very special, and something uniquely New Zealand," Ardern said. 

"It will also break up the lag between public holidays that currently exist between Queen's Birthday in early June and Labour Day in late October."

O'Connor, in a statement to Newshub, said National supported Matariki as a public holiday, if another public holiday was removed - the same position as ACT

"Adding another public holiday at a time when small businesses are already doing it tough, with increased costs for extended sick leave and the minimum wage, will have an impact on them."

O'Connor did not confirm, when asked, if National would scrap the holiday if the centre-right wins the election in 2023.